On a wintry night, when many northern Michigan residents have departed for seasonal refuge in warmer climates, the bright neon marquee of the Rogers Theater enlivens downtown Rogers City with action and activity. The action could be a movie or a live musical; it could be a high school band concert, a guest lecture or a tap dance class. Whatever the activity, you can be sure that fresh popcorn and candy will be available in the lobby, served up by a local student working her first wage-earning job. The local kids staff the theater’s summer ice cream stand too. Customers are welcome to bring their cone into the show, or hang around with friends at the café tables located outside under signature red and gold umbrellas. .
In December, the action is a community Christmas concert featuring performances from three different church choirs, a barbershop quartet, a local guitarist and a brother/sister youth combo on mixed instruments, with sing-along carols interspersed for audience enjoyment. The event is free and open to the public, with a basket out front for donations.
The Rogers Theater is an unexpected delight in a small town of some 3,300 souls. The building was constructed in 1937 as a movie house, but the advent of video games and in-home projection systems threatened to put the movies out of business. In 2003, the theater was purchased by a retired attorney with a bent for music and the performing arts. A stage was soon added, and live productions began to alternate with first run movies.
From the start, the theater was a community undertaking. The inaugural show on the new stage was produced by the high school drama club. Eventually, a community theater organization was formed to sponsor shows, but the regulars here are not the typical art elite that might be found in a larger place. Instead, the stage and theater management duties are shared by a couple of plumbers, a retired cop, a postal worker, an in-home health care assistant, a pre-school teacher, insurance and car salesmen and a nursing home aide. Volunteer seamstresses make the costumes and cast members scrounge in their own homes to come up with the props. Every audition is open, and every production includes one or two new people not previously involved, who may be totally new to the stage or community. Actors come back time and again because of the fun and camaraderie they experience during rehearsals, performances, or the show post mortem that invariably occurs at the only local bar serving food late into the night.
In summer, a youth theater program is offered at no charge, culminating in a youth production just before school starts in the fall. Every child who auditions is given a part to play, and many come from rival rural towns not known for municipal cooperation. Kids participate in the regular show season as well, where cast members from age 6 to 94 have performed together. Young artists and local musicians have used the stage for recitals and concerts, with their names placed proudly on the marquee.
Performance nights are interesting in a small town. Many in the audience know some or all of the performers on stage. Yet now they see their friends and acquaintances in another light; with unanticipated aspects of character and talent revealed. The theater has become an important “third place,” where the whole of a unique person can be expressed, beyond the roles and restrictions imposed by family and day job. For the community, the great theatrical scenes they witness, along with the amusing flubs, will become the topic of general community conversation, not only in the following week but in the years to come, imbedded as part of local lore .
What is it about community theater that makes it such a successful “Third Place?” One participant quoted on the American Association of Community Theaters’ web site puts it this way: “A friend who used to move a lot told me that every time he moved, he would find a community theatre in which to participate. He knew it was a place he would always feel welcome. It was also a comfortable atmosphere, with the diverse personalities and backgrounds; where a person could always find someone with whom to relate. This has been true for me as well--in Michigan, the United States, and around the world.” (Shirley Harbin, Detroit. MI) In downtown Rogers City, exactly that kind of community theater is alive and well.
Full Disclosure Statement: The Rogers City Theatre is owned and operated by Karl W. Heidemann, the author’s husband, and every item in the author’s home not nailed down to the floor has been “borrowed” to appear on stage as a show prop.